Monday, February 13, 2006


When A Stranger Calls

Even I could tell this was a bad movie.

I never saw the original, from 1979. I do remember the commercials (I was ten then), and that signature line, "We traced the call, and it's coming from inside the house!" Maybe it was just me, but that line knocked my socks off. When I started seeing comercials for the new version, I knew I was going to see it.

Here's Scott LeBrun commenting over at IMDB on the 1979 version:
Carol Kane plays Jill, a babysitter who receives ominous phone calls all night long from psycho (Tony Beckley) who repeatedly asks her if she has 'checked the children'. This goes on until the cops are finally called to the scene - just 21 straight minutes of well-crafted suspense. However, the film takes an unfortunate detour for the next hour, focusing on the pursuit of the killer (who's managed to escape from a mental hospital, naturally) by John Clifford (Charles Durning), the original detective to arrive at the crime scene, who's now a private detective (this all takes place seven years later). The film follows Beckley around as he wanders aimlessly around the city and starts harassing dour, middle-aged Tracy (Colleen Dewhurst); then he picks up a paper with Jill's picture on the front and decides to pay her a visit for old time's sake.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the movie I saw.

In the 2006 version, the film opens on a carnival operating in a heighborhood peppered with oil wells. Oil well goes pump pump. Merry-go-round goes round round. And in a house that we see from various perspectives in relation to the other two images, a phone goes ring ring. After several calls and rising panic within the girl answering the phone, we hear a scream. The people in the movie don't hear it because of the carnival noise. Cut to the next morning, and a hardcore detective pulling up to the crime scene. He gets to the girl's bedroom, and almost throws up. We never see what he saw, but we do get to see that it took four bags to carry away whatever remains remained. We don't know what was done to the poor girl to require the four bags, but we do know there was no murder weapon. The guy apparently gets medieval bare-handed style. But that's just an intro, cause now we're going to a town a couple of hours down the highway where the real movie happens. Which is unfortunate, because the best part of the movie just ended.

I don't notice acting performances very often. I usually leave movies talking about the story, not who played what. But I noticed the acting in this dud. We meet ill-fated baby sitter Jill and a couple of her friends at the high school, and all I could think was, "These girls are really bad." It wasn't just the girls.

It just wasn't that scary. Even the big reveal moments, the ones that make you jump, didn't. There was only one brief moment of graphic violence, and that was when Jill was fighting back against the killer.

The main problem with the film was that the stranger was just that, a stranger. Any movie needs an antagonist, but even when we see the bad guy's face at the end, it's no one we know. Yes, there were the phone calls, but the voice isn't what kills, it's the guy doing the talking. Even Michael, Jason, and Freddy actually took people out. The Stranger does kill a couple of people. It might be more accurate to say that a couple of people were killed by the Stranger, since we only see the victims near the end of the movie. You don't need to go full blood and guts mode to have the bad guy at least be in the same frame as the victims.

Jill's friend comes to the remote house for a short visit, but when she tries to leave, she fumbles with her keys and the wind rustles the bushes. Then she drops the keys! And she has to bend down and get them! And when she stands up again THE KILLER IS GOING TO BE RIGHT THERE!!! But he's not, and she gets in the car. She backs up almost to the gate and sees a fallen branch is now blocking it. She looks in the mirror. She looks at the door lock button. She decided to go for it! She opens the door and runs to the branch! The wind is rustling, or is it the killer?!? And then the CAMERA MOVES REALLY FASTAND THE KILLER GRABS HER!!!! Ooops, no he doesn't. The camera moves fast and the scene ends. Near the end, we see her body in an upstairs bathroom. Doesn't look horribly mangled. She might be sleeping off a drunken binge that ended with her praying to the porcelain gods. We didn't even get that much of a thrill from the maid. During a chase scene we spot her head sitting at the bottom of the fish pond.

The theory of slasher killings is that the sinful are punished, and it holds up here. Jill's friend, the dead one in the bathroom? She kissed Jill's boyfriend. What did the maid do? Who cares? She's just a housekeeper.

I think this movie sounds better on paper than it could ever possibly be. "We traced the call, and it's coming from inside the house!" is a great line. If I worked at a studio, I would approve the movie based on that. Well, it might be a great line, and could be a great moment, I'm afraid it's just not enough to hang a whole movie on. If I can tell it's a bad movie, you know it's got to be terrible, and I love everything, except King Kong.
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